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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Golden Calves, Blue Donkeys, and Red Elephants

A sermon by Lon Hider delivered at Eden Lutheran Church on October 11th, 2020

Scriptures:  Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Matthew 22:1-14

Have you ever had a craving for that perfect sandwich? You open the fridge and pull out that shaved smoked turkey and the perfect sliced tomatoes and crispy lettuce. Then you opened the bread drawer and the bread was moldy. This is how I feel about our scriptures today. Our middle reading is a scrumptious psalm, filled with poetry and hope. However, this psalm is sandwiched between two ugly stories. The golden calf and the wedding feast. Moses holds God back from destroying his people and Jesus describes the weeping and gnashing of teeth.  We will look at each story one at a time.

Why is our loving God so upset about a golden calf? I mean it seems to be mostly God’s fault. Through Moses, God drags a whole lot of people into the wilderness (ever had a bad camping experience that never seemed to end) and then God and Moses disappear into this smoking mountain with no word when they will return.  The crowd is ‘social distanced” from the only life they knew and are in wilderness culture shock. You can just feel the anxiety spreading amongst the people. They do what people do; they put their trust in something that will guide them in difficult times. They create a god who they believe with take care of them, while they wait for Yahweh to show up. So why is this so terrible?

Both the golden calf and the wedding feast are stories designed to help us appreciate the terrible consequences of idolatry.

What makes idolatry such a terrible thing? The golden calf is foundational story for the destructiveness of idolatry. Every little Jewish boy and girl would have been taught this story so that they would not repeat what their ancestors had done. Those who included this story in the bible look back at their history and see their nation being dragged off into exile again and again. They look back and find a foundational story that will stick in the Jewish consciousness for all time. 

 In the U.S, we have signs and bumper stickers that remind us to slow down, buckle up and don’t drive drunk. I could repeat these propositions with my kids or I could tell them the story of their grandfather who drove into a tree under the influence and died.  I could tell them I remember the knock at the door when the police showed up and my mother in tears because he passed out, without a safety belt and drove into a tree.  This story is now part of their family history.

The golden calf is a foundational story for the consequences of idolatry. The bible dramatizes these stories as it describes the terrible consequences of exile again and again for the Jewish people. The wedding feast is another vivid description of the terrors of idolatry. From cover to cover, the bible warns us in multiple ways to avoid idolatry.

These stories are not just Jewish stories they are also our stories. They form our identity as those seeking to worship God alone. They scream at us like parents watching a toddler wander into traffic. This is not a time for, “um excuse me little Johnny, but could we discuss where you are standing right now and where this might lead. I did some research on what could happen, could we take a minute to talk about it.”  No, there is no negotiation with idolatry because the consequences are too terrible to imagine. This is what these stories are communicating.

So what is idolatry? Idolatry is making a non-ultimate thing the ultimate thing. And there is only one ultimate thing. We have different names for the ultimate thing that Christians call God.

When we make a non-ultimate thing ultimate, we have just made a golden calf. We made a god out of something that is not God. And it can even be a good thing. I am looking forward to hunting season, but there was a time when I made hunting the ultimate thing for about 3 months every year. Hunting consumed my world. It was more important than the needs of my family, my work suffered, and our finances suffered in pursuit of an animal with points on its head.

When we make our gender the ultimate thing, we end up sexism. When we make our race the ultimate thing, we end up with racism. When we make our reading of the bible the ultimate thing we end up with fundamentalism. When we make our nation, the ultimate thing we end up with fascism, and when we listen to those who make our nation the ultimate thing, we are manipulated into dropping bombs on people. We drop verbal bombs, political bombs, and even real bombs on anyone we think is a threat to our ultimate thing. Any bad “ism” you can name is the poison of idolatry.

The United States is a polarized country fighting over two idols in a heated political war.  In our scripture, it was a golden calf, but today we have blue donkeys and red elephants. Jesus weeps over this nation, not because America itself is more important than other nations but because of the suffering that is hear and knocking at the door. He was the one who said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” God invites us to the wedding feast but many wander into the traffic of idolatry. This path leads to the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

We see this dramatized in the parable of the wedding feast. This parable reveals where the idolatry has taken them as a nation. The religious/political leaders (there was no separation between the two) were so idolatrous that they turn down the “ultimate” revealed in the person of Christ because they had made their religion, their politics, and their nation the ultimate thing.    

This is the context for the parable of the wedding feast . Idolatry is insidious and deceptive and carries the weight of distorted authority. And so, well-meaning religious people took a few verses from the bible and made it the ultimate thing. In Deut 28, it describes a God who blesses obedience and curses disobedience. Those with the religious/political and cultural power used this to justify oppression. They said about themselves, “look we are rich, we have land, we have influence and it must be because we are obedient to God. But when they looked at the poor and the downtrodden they said, “Look they are in debt over their ears, they are losing their land, they have no real influence, they must not have obeyed God.

But the religious/political leaders and the system they created didn’t get “blessed” because they obeyed God they got that way by exploiting the poor and the oppressed. And they stayed in power by using their reading of the bible to continue their oppression. It is not unlike those who used the bible in this country to justify the slavery of black people and the genocide of Native Americans. 

Jesus sees where all of this is leading. His parable shows where there idolatry is leading them.  Eventually the poor will have enough and revolt against their oppressors. Poor people started the Jewish revolt in 66 AD. A revolt that went straight into the temple (the very seat of religious and political power) and they first thing they did was burn the records of debt housed in the temple of God. Of course this system also funneled money to the Romans in the forms of taxes and furthered burdened the common people. When the revolt led to Masada the Romans destroyed them and the temple system that had failed to keep the money flowing. The very center of Jewish life centered in the temple was gone forever. I have only described the tip of the iceberg in terms of the suffering that flowed from this idolatry. Jesus only wept twice in the bible. Once when he lost his friend Lazarus and once when he pictured the destruction of Jerusalem. All because they made a non-ultimate thing and ultimate thing.  

So how do we know when we have idolatry? If you have to fight to protect your ultimate then you have an idol. Idolatry is hard to recognize and hard to admit because it feels like the ultimate thing. It feels ultimate because it has become ultimate. When something feels ultimate, we will fight to protect it because it is just too important to lose.

But here’s the thing. If you have to fight for your ultimate then it isn’t ultimate, because if it is ultimate, then nothing can threaten it. (repeat).The ultimate by definition cannot be other than ultimate or it wouldn’t be ultimate. Jesus could love his enemies because his enemies were no threat to what mattered most to him…loving God.  Could his enemies keep him from loving God? No, his enemies became the very expression of his love for God…

The Christ is the way, the truth and the life because non-ultimate things did not blind him.  When we follow Christ, he breaks the power of the idols in our lives.   He gives us eyes to see. Until that happens however, we will fight to protect what we think is ultimate and others will suffer for it.  In fact, when others suffer in the name of our “ultimate” then we have an idol not God.

And so, we break the power of idolatry by practicing love. The bible doesn’t say that law and order never fails, or that protests never fail, or that democracy never fails or power never fails or being right never fails. I have been so right in my life, that I am wrong. You know being right can make you wrong.  Idols always diminish our humanity.  No, the bible says that love never fails because love is the only ultimate flowing from the ultimate.

Someone asked Jesus what was ultimate, and he said: “and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and the second ultimate flows from the first.  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And it does not matter if your neighbor has a Biden or a Trump sign on their lawn. 

I love a video. A little boy announces to his mother that he is going to find God and so he takes a walk through the park and he stops to enjoy his lunch on the park bench. There on the park bench is a black homeless woman. He offers her one of his Twinkies and she breaks out with the biggest smile. He rushes home to tell his mom that he had found God. She is black woman with the biggest smile he has ever seen. Later the homeless woman sits down with a homeless friend and she says she has had the best day because she met God in a little white boy who gave her his last Twinkie.  Both of them experienced what is ultimate and in that, they experienced God.

When we practice love, especially for those who threaten what is important to us, we are breaking the power of idolatry over our lives. In those moments, we sit in the very presence of a God who is love and life just got more beautiful.

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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